The Secret Language of Comics: Visual Thinking and Writing

Exploring the Open Ocean

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Writing to me is a vast sea waiting to be explored, and the knowledge and skills I gained from the First-Year Writing course hold together like a sailboat, carrying me over the future adventures in writing. In this sketch, I break down a sailboat into five parts, each of them represents one learning outcome I achieved.

  • Jib Sail: Writing as a Process

   Over the semester, we keep returning to our previous writings to re-edit them into better texts. The Literacy Narrative assignment, in particular, shows me how writing is an ongoing process that requires constant reflection and revision to create good works. I paired this particular learning outcome with the jib sail because when sailing, jib sail needs to be constantly adjusted according to varying wind direction so that the boat can sail smoothly, which is similar to the continual adjusting in writing.

  • Hull: Rhetorical Composition

   The hull is the main body of a boat, holding all separate parts together. Similarly, throughout this semester we were able to explore several aspects of rhetorical composition. I was inspired to try out various mediums through assignments like creating comics & Halfa Kucha presentation. I also explored various genres such as composing a visual poem in the Human Document Sunday Sketch and writing an analytical essay.

  • Daggerboard: Digital Citizenship

   The whole course is structured around the idea of us being in an electronic environment, from setting up our own websites to posting updates online. Aside from posting articles, I felt the need to design my website to make it more attractive. I also learned to include engaging introductions in my writings and appropriately give credits to sources I used. All of these are big parts of digital citizenship and essential tools I can use in future writing, just like the daggerboard being the core that balances the entire boat.

  • Rudder: Critical thinking

   Just as the rudder steers the boat, critical thinking skills guided me through all projects of the course. Class discussions, peers’ works, and assigned readings all helped me grow as a critical thinker. 

  • Main Sail: Visual Thinking

   The development of visual thinking skills is undoubtedly the main focus of the course. Trying for the first time to turn an alphabetic text into a comic, I was surprised by how visual images can effectively inspire me to revise my original essay. Besides, I was able to analyze visual elements in the comics we read and gain insights on the big picture from minor visual cues. 

Lastly, after completing the course, I found myself a more observant and innovative writer. We were constantly asked to observe things happening around and incorporate them into our works, sometimes giving deeper meanings to everyday objects and events. Therefore, I start to pay more attention to every little aspect of my life and hope to find inspirations in an innovative way. 

Words Inspired by Images

Having created a comic before returning to my alphabetic narrative was truly helpful. There are two major changes in my Literacy Narrative Part 3 essay, both inspired by my comic. First, I was able to use more vivid language in the new version to make my narrative more engaging. Although this seems to be the trend of all revising process, having converted the text narrative in the form of a visual medium beforehand definitely makes the revision on language easier. For example, in my original version of the essay, I wrote, “whenever I felt like letting my thought fly away, it always ended up hitting the walls they built.” When visualizing this part of the narrative through comic, I chose to depict a bird locked up in a cage to symbolize my helplessness in that situation. This image, then, surprisingly inspired me to reframe the sentence in a more engaging way: “whenever my thoughts struggled to break free from the iron chains, hopping and flapping desperately to find a way out, they always ended up hitting the towering walls of rules, wounded.” In conclusion, the comic allowed me to actually envision my narrative and through the imagery, I was able to further polish my wording. The other major revision is on the overall content of my narrative. During the peer review process, I realized that each of my peers gave very different interpretations of the theme of my narrative, which led me to reflect on how to make my theme clearer in the upcoming revision. Reading over my comic again, I found that I needed to emphasize more on my discovery of the power of combining visuals and written texts,  which is the intended overarching theme of both my essay and comic. Therefore, I went back to my alphabetic text and strengthened this idea through reframing sentences for emphasis. I also noticed that the second part of my original essay was a bit unrelated to my theme, so in my revised version, I focus more on portraying how I learnt to incorporate images and words to overcome difficulties I met when reading and writing. It really surprised me that viewing visual mediums like comics seemed to be a quite “sensory” process, yet it actually contributed to the overall logic and structure of my text narrative.

The literacy narrative assignment undoubtedly helped me meet several aspects of the learning outcomes of this course. Having revised the essay three times (including the comic creation process), I learnt that writing is an ongoing process that every time we go back to the text, something new would come up and be changed. The repeated editing is, indeed, the indispensable process of creating a successful and thought-through essay. Moreover, as aforementioned, I was inspired by visual elements to polish the language and identity tensions of my narrative. And this process of jumping back and forth between visuals and alphabetic text and generating new ideas from it is exactly the demonstration of visual thinking strategies.

“I Love You, Leon”

I watched Léon: The Professional a long time ago. Honestly, at first, I wasn’t thinking about recreating this scene at all since Mathilda (Natalie Portman) is a much younger girl with short hair. However, I ended up doing it because the scene was relatively easy to set up – all I need is a sad face, some tears, and a little bit of sunlight. That said, it took me such a long time to get it right. The idea of replacing the gun with a DCT banana was inspired by Banksy’s Pulp Fiction, which I think is pretty funny. With my ‘gun’ in hand and tears (eye drops) in eyes, I did my best to frown and cry but I could never make that complicated expression of hers. And when I finally got the tilt of my head and the position of my hand right, my artificial tears were drying up. Got nothing more to say but my respects to the 12-year-old Natalie Portman. 

Pulp Fiction by Banksy

(Plus, I really enjoyed this assignment in the afternoon sun:))

What Love Is

For this week’s sketch assignment, I chose to record a short conversation with my four-year-old cousin Cindy through a comic. It was one of my busiest days and I was staying up late working on my philosophy paper on the subject of Love. Suddenly, I received a FaceTime invitation from Cindy. Even though I was so stressed at the moment, her sweet voice never failed to brighten up my day. And when she told me she loves me, it was the best moment of my life. However, as adults, we tend to have this mindset that Love is too heavy a word that a kid might not truly understand the meaning of it (as if we do). To my surprise, my cousin gave the most perfect answer I have ever heard about what love is. As simple as it was, it struck me so hard that I would never forget about it.

This conversation got me thinking about how we tend to complicate things as we grow up. As we focus more and more on logical concepts and definitions, we forget to listen to what our heart has to say, and that might be the one true answer we have been looking for all along. Since this true story gave me such an interesting insight, I knew it was something I wanted to portray. 

I think the most difficult part of telling a true story through a brief comic is that life isn’t always dramatic, and most of the time, true stories can be slightly less exciting than fictional ones. When I was making my comic, I was aware that depicting a FaceTime scene can be boring since the “camera” is fixed. Therefore, I tried to use different background colors for different panels, and I also created a fantasy effect (I tried my best) for the last panel to make the narrative more visually attractive. 

A Reflection Upon Literacy Narrative Part 2: Making Comics

Even though the comic making process took up most of my free time of the week, I enjoyed it so much. At the beginning of the project, I was told that it could be a ton of work to convert my story board into a final version because I basically included all contents from my alphabetic version in my comic. However, since I’ve been trying to draw random comics from a young age, I found most of the process went through smoothly, and I ended up spent most of my time coloring and polishing my final piece instead of struggling about the overall structure. Similar to my alphabetic narrative, my comic is organized in a chronological order which reflects on my growth as a reader and writer from childhood to adolescence. In the original essay, I divided my narrative into three parts with different onomatopoeias as titles, each symbolizing a specific period of my reading and writing experiences. Transforming that into visual representation was, surprisingly, natural. For example, there is a paragraph in my essay describing how I climbed up and down the squeaky little ladder repeatedly to get the books off of the shelf. And in my comic, I actually managed to draw four parallel panels showing this “up-and-down” cycle in a row to better represent the idea of the repeating motion. I also added the onomatopoeias alongside the actions depicted (inspired by Stitches), which I was not able to do in alphabetic text, and it worked so well by making the figures seem to actually move within the panels.

The peer editing process we had last week was very helpful in terms of providing me with new insights into my work. In my original story board, I added the narrative text directly onto my images, which was not that visually aesthetic. I was then suggested to create a section for the texts on each panel (just like Spinning and Kindred do), and the comics turned out to be much clearer and organized. On the other hand, my peers seem to enjoy the way I incorporated sound into my narrative, so I knew I should probably emphasize the visual representation of sound in my final comic to make it enjoyable to read.

This assignment (although in the end it didn’t really seem like one but rather something that I would genuinely give all my efforts to make it better and better) really shows me how hard it is to make a comic, and thus I now view comics from an entirely different perspective than before since I know every visual element presented is a thought-through choice. To my biggest surprise, I found my way of recreating the alphabetic narrative through visual representation was, in fact, largely influenced by the comics I read before, as you can tell from this reflection how some of my choices are inspired by them. Again, the power of visuals I guess.

The Happier, The Better?

Is it always true that better moods can lead to relatively higher productivity? My data says “no!” 

For the past two weeks, I’ve been tracking the correlation between my mood and the level of my productivity. In order to be more precise on my data, I decided to focus only on my productivity when studying, which includes my time spent doing homework, group projects, class registration, advising, and all things that contribute to my overall academic progress. I chose to record the total time I spent studying, the actual time I studied, my time of highly focusing on my work, and the time I didn’t study (including looking at my phone, chatting with my friends, eating snacks, etc.) within the total studying time range. Tracking my mood was, however, comparatively harder because it is a more feeling-based rating rather than solid data. Therefore, I chose to give a numerical measurement to the abstract feeling by dividing my mood into different levels:

  • Level 1: Negative (e.g. upset, angry)
  • Level 5-6: Neutral (e.g. calm)
  • Level 10: Positive (e.g. happy, excited)

I then rated my mood at the beginning of every one of my tasks, and I averaged the ratings by the end of each day as my general mood when studying. 

When I first started this project, I expected my productivity to be the highest when I was in the best mood. However, looking at my final graph, I surprisingly found that when I was particularly happy and excited, my productivity turned out to be low. This result can be observed through my data for Friday when I was so thrilled about the weekend that I ended up spending half of my time chatting with my friends when doing homework. In contrast, my productivity was the highest when my mood level was around 6-7, which was a neutral and slightly good mood. From the graph, we can see that high productivity is achieved when the red bar (actual time spent studying) is significantly longer than the yellow bar (time not studying), and this only occurs when my mood was neutral (6-7). Other than that, I also found that being in a neutral mood helped increase my concentration. It is important to note that here I’m comparing the percentages of my time of highly focused (“time of highly focused” divided by “total time spent studying”) between different days, rather than comparing the actual hours of highly focusing time because the total studying time varies from day to day.

Presenting my data in a visual graph was time-consuming. I used to record my daily data in a hand-drawn spreadsheet and was about to do so for my final version of the assignment. However, since I have never tried using digital software to create charts before, I decided to give it a shot. After hours of struggling, I managed to create a visual chart on The visual chart is certainly a valuable tool since it visualizes my study habit and relates it directly to the level of my mood. I’m definitely inspired by the data to calm myself down before I dive into my work in order to achieve the highest of my productivity, and I should probably avoid studying when I’m thrilled.

A Long Trip

This week’s assignment is so far the most enjoyable one. The idea of picking out words and phrases from an existing page and rearranging them into a new poem is exciting yet challenging. I started with skimming through the entire page and underlining some words I might later use in my poem while reading. As I selected more and more words, I had a much clearer idea of what my poem was going to be like, and what message it was going to convey. I then framed the selected texts with irregular text bubbles.

The painting part was actually easy. Reading my poem over and over, I imagined two people, friends or couples, riding on a train going nowhere, just to get out of the place they’ve been living their entire lives. They had no plans for the future, nor did they have any money, but they trusted each other with all their heart. With this picture in mind, I drew a half-opened train window, along with the pretty view outside. I chose to use vibrant colors because they symbolize a bright new start and getting away from the dull past.

I think the biggest challenge is to make clear the order of the verses. Since the texts are all separate, I decided to link some of the text bubbles together to guide my readers. Even so, the reading sequence might still vary from person to person, but I don’t consider it a big problem since every reader can have their own unique experience and interpretation with my visual poem in this way.

Is Fall Here?

When I first saw the assignment prompt, I couldn’t come up with any story to tell. Overwhelmed with my midterms, I was always hastily running between the library and my dorm, having no chance of slowing down a bit to see what was happening around. Today, two high school friends of mine sent some fall scene pictures (the first two panels credited to them) in our group chat and I was shocked by how leaves in other cities had already turned red. So on my way to class today, I deliberately observed the fall scene in Atlanta. At first, I was very excited to find some fallen maple leaves on the ground and I thought to myself “The fall had really come!” However, as I turned and looked around, I saw green trees just like in the summertime. Disappointed? A little bit, since I never get to see leaves turning red in my city. I was expecting a “redder” fall scene here. Plus, I finally realized how far away my friends are from me through such comparison.

I think the composition process was actually very similar to that of the triptych since both are telling a story with a clear structure. When crafting my quadriptych, I think the contrast between the fall scenes can be somewhat funny because the first three panels create an illusion that the final panel is going to follow the trend, but it doesn’t. Having two panels for the middle act instead of one allows me to provide more information for the readers. Here I was able to include images from two different cities other than Atlanta rather than just one so that the comparison is made stronger. 

Heavy For A Reason

  • Dark Blue Backpack: I bought this backpack immediately when I saw it in the store. It’s very practical with A LOT OF zipper pockets which I can put all my stuff in without having them tangled together. I just discovered that it’s Emory blue, which makes me like it more.
  • An Emory Hat: I wouldn’t have survived the summer without this hat. The sun was burning and I would definitely faint from the heat without it protecting my skin. It is surprisingly useful even in the fall because it just saved me from the rain today.
  • MacBook Pro: I got it over the summer for college and I decorated it with Emory stickers because I think they are cute. It sometimes makes my bag extremely heavy and gets incredibly hot and noisy whenever I open the Steam app. It just wants to see me studying.
  • Beats Headphones: it didn’t come with the computer because of some weird policies of the Apple store in my country. It is supposed to be wireless but my computer just can’t pair with it through Bluetooth and I forget to bring the wire all the time, so it just lies in my bag, adding meaningless weight.
  • Water Bottle: I wanted to get an Emory water bottle in the bookstore but they were not good-looking so I kept this old one. It got this metallic exterior which is so cool. It can be super heavy when filled with water.
  • My Philosophy and Art History pouch folder: I have Art History class right after Philosophy so I just put their hand-outs together in one folder.
  • Pencil Case: I’ve used it for three years and I can’t love it more. It houses all my pens, markers, and color pencils since I need multiple colors when drawing (sometimes on my notebooks during class:)
  • My Emory card and room key: One of the most important things in my bag. Without it I would be locked out in the wind and loosing probably a hundred bucks. I always think that it might not be a good idea to tie them together because if I lose I lose both, but I’m too lazy to make a change.
  • A Twizzler: How could it still be in my bag??! My friend gave it to me during the summer and I literally forgot to eat it until now.
  • My Wallet: carrying it with me makes me feel safe even though I don’t really need it on campus.
  • A Lipstick: It’s a very bad idea to carry a lipstick in bag under the Atlanta sun – it melted once and I put it in the refrigerator for a night to get it back in shape.
  • Some tissue: I developed this habit of carrying some tissue around in my bag when I was in China since we don’t usually have free tissue in the restaurants. It brings me the reputation of always being well-prepared  whenever my friends spill their drinks on themselves. 
  • A watch: I don’t really wear it because I can always check the time on my phone and somehow I don’t think it is comfortable to type wearing a watch.

I never figured out why my bag was so heavy until I emptied all the stuff out. There are about half of these things that I don’t need to carry with me everyday but I just do. I surprisingly found that I have a personal story with every object in my bag even though I just consider them as my daily necessities that I never really pay attention to. Therefore, to a certain extent, they do tell a lot about me as a person. Looking at the picture, I realize most of my belongings are blue because it’s such a chill color that makes me feel cozy, which also speaks of me as an easy-going and low-key person. I also find that I like being well-equipped even though that means more weight on me. And that is exactly me in terms of always being ready and prepared. Besides, it shows the caring side of me because even if I don’t need tissue that often, I will always carry some with me since people around might need it. I’m always willing to help!

I don’t think this is a hard assignment and the image-creating process was very simple as well. I just needed to empty out all the contents, and words just naturally flowed out when describing them, and of course myself. I definitely think this is a type of writing since I’m conveying information through my words with a careful thinking process. Not only do we need to explain the items but we should also present them as representatives of ourselves, which needs a thoughtful and logical construction of language. Drawing connections between two originally unrelated concepts (in this case items in my bag and my personality) and generating a new idea from that can also be an essential feature of writing. 

Don’t Say No When It’s Your Turn to Roll the Dice

This week’s sketch assignment is by far the hardest for me. I have never read any triptych comic before so it is a completely foreign term that I need to experiment on. After skimming through the examples on the A Softer World website, I was still a little confused about how to create a triptych because sometimes it seems like the narratives in two successive panels are completely unrelated. However, it is clear that each tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and pictures help push the narration forward. With this in mind, I started to scroll through my photo album trying to find a picture that could be used to develop a narrative. Then, I found a monopoly meme my friend used to send me and it made me laugh (shown below). Since the image was zoomed in  from an original larger picture, I thought of gradually enlarging one single photo to create a sequence. So I searched up a picture of monopoly  with a slightly retro tone on Google (Photo source: Classical Board Games we love, and edited words on it. 

The Monopoly Meme

The story here is not really my personal story but I feel like it can speak of many children’s experiences. I’ve met many parents who lash out at their children because of their deteriorated relationship with their partner. Even though it seems to be a normal thing people do when having a bad time, it definitely hurts their children’s feeling with a ruthless rejection. Therefore, I want to send the message of caring about others’ feelings even if we are not in the best mood through this triptych. Looking back at the composition process, I find it interesting that the final panel is itself hilarious yet within the whole context it becomes sad and ironic. It is definitely not easy to tell a story in three panels and at the same time add some deep meaning to it. On the other hand, it is exactly the simplification of narrative that allows the readers to interpret the meaning themselves, which is completely different from the writing we have done which explains everything to the readers as clearly as possible.